When I recently challenged Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine about his response to Newt Gingrich’s controversial statement about the “invented” Palestinian people, he responded that his “semi-critique of nationalism is equal opportunity” and he suggested that I check out two of his relevant articles. (Twitter exchange Ibishblog – WarpedMirrorPMB December 10; the exchange began when I took issue with Ibish’s argument that “there was no Israel and no such thing as an ‘Israeli people’ before 1948. So the idea that Palestinians are ‘an invented people’ while Israelis somehow are not is historically indefensible and inaccurate;” in response, I pointed out that the “Land of Israel” as well as the “Israelites” are concepts dating back to biblical times.)
I have by now read several of the relevant articles written by Ibish, including the two he urged me to read. In my view, there is no doubt that Ibish’s thoughts on the subject are sophisticated and make for very worthwhile reading; but, for reasons I will explain below, I’m not convinced that his critique of nationalism is as even-handed as he claims.
The first article Ibish recommended to me is entitled “Fetishizing nationalism.” Living up to his claim of being an “equal opportunity”-critic of nationalism, Ibish argues right at the beginning of this piece: “All contemporary nationalisms are based on constructed and imagined narratives about history, geography, culture, ethnicity and religion.” In his concluding paragraph, Ibish again emphasizes:
“The analytical challenge is to recognize that while not all nationalist claims are necessarily equally valid (they may speak on behalf of very few people, for example, and not really have the constituency they claim), in some important senses they are, however, all equally invalid. Championing one’s own nationalism as self-evidently ‘authentic’ at the expense of a well-established, deeply-rooted and much-cherished rival identity is a particularly lowly form of self-delusion, chauvinism and fetishism.”
That last sentence has a seemingly solomonic quality, since it can be read as addressed to Palestinians and Israelis alike. Unfortunately, in the context of this particular article, it seems more likely that Ibish was admonishing those who subscribe to the “traditional Zionist narrative” that Ibish breezily summarizes in a previous paragraph.
The second article Ibish recommended is entitled “Mr. Mileikowsky and the ‘seal of Netanyahu’: the perilous encounter between modern nationalism and ancient history.” Again, at the outset of the piece, Ibish appears to be very much the “equal opportunity”-critic of nationalism he claims to be when he argues:
“the nationalist identities of Egypt or China are not more authentic or legitimate because they claim direct descent from ancient civilizations and kingdoms than is the American one which celebrates its non-ethnic, sui generis (at the time of its founding anyway), and ideological self-definition. All three are equally the products of a set of developments in global history that produced them in their present form at the current moment. The American version of nationalism based on adherence to political principles and a kind of US civic religion can’t be privileged over ethnic nationalisms either, and is also very much grounded in myth, legend and historical fantasy.”
Ibish then proceeds to take on the notion “that there is a hierarchy of legitimacy of nationalist claims and that the Israeli one is simply and obviously superior, older, more ‘authentic’ and more deeply rooted than the Palestinian one.” Continue reading